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Is Emotional Distress Alone Insufficient Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?

By Carly Van Thomme, Esq.

Yes, emotional distress alone is insufficient under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) prohibits prisoners from pursuing 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuits based solely on emotional distress or mental anguish. To state a cognizable 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, a prisoner must be able to demonstrate that he has suffered an actual physical injury. “Section § 1997e(e) provides as follows: No federal action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury…” Harden-Bey v. Rutter, 524 F.3d 789 (6th Cir. 2008); Blackwell v. Mich. Dep’t of Corr., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104712, *26 (W.D. Mich. Aug. 26, 2010).

A physical injury need not be “significant” to be actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983; however, a de minimis physical injury is insufficient to state a claim. Jarriett v. Wilson, 414 F.3d 634, 640 (6th Cir. 2005). Examples of de minimis physical injury include minor bruises and abrasions, swelling, cramps, and a bloody nose. Jarriett v. Wilson at 460-461; Corsetti v. Tessmer, 41 Fed. Appx. 753 (6th Cir. 2002); Luong v. Hatt, 979 F. Supp. 481 (N.D. Tex. 1997). Generally speaking, if someone outside of prison would not see a doctor for the injury, the physical injury is de minimis for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). Jarriett v. Wilson at 461, quoting Luong v. Hatt at 485-486. Fear of a potential physical injury is likewise insufficient under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mattox v. Edelman, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106130 (E.D. Mich. 2013) (dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against a physician assistant who did not send him to the hospital for chest pain where plaintiff feared he would have a heart attack but did not).